Mexico drug gangs turn weapons on army

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MEXICO CITY — Drug traffickers fighting to control northern Mexico
have turned their guns and grenades on the Mexican army, authorities
said, in an apparent escalation of warfare that played out across
multiple cities in two border states.

In coordinated attacks, gunmen in armored cars and
equipped with grenade launchers fought army troops this week and
attempted to trap some of them inside two military bases by cutting off
access and blocking highways — a new tactic by Mexico’s organized criminals.

In taking such aggressive action, the traffickers
have shown they have no reluctance to challenge the army head-on and
that they possess good intelligence on where the army is, how it moves
and when it operates.

At least 18 alleged attackers were killed and one
soldier wounded in the firefights that erupted in half a dozen towns
and cities in the states of Tamaulipas and Nuevo Leon on Tuesday, the army said, topping off one of the deadliest months yet in a drug war that has raged for nearly 3 1/2 years.

The U.S. Consulate in Monterrey issued a new warning to Americans who might be traveling in northern Mexico for the Easter break, citing the sudden outbursts of gun battles in Nuevo Leon and neighboring states.

Traffickers have fought with army patrols
previously, but the attempt to blockade the troops’ garrisons came
after weeks of an intense, bloody power struggle between two rival
organizations, the Gulf cartel and its erstwhile paramilitary allies,
the Zetas, to control the region bordering southernmost Texas.
Part of the strategy of Tuesday’s assaults may have been to prevent the
army from patrolling, to give the drug gangs a freer hand in their
fight against each other.

“This really speaks to the incredible organization
and firepower that the drug-trafficking organizations have managed to
muster,” said Tony Payan, a border expert at the University of Texas at El Paso.
“These are organizations that are flexible, supple and quick to react
and adapt. They no doubt represent a challenge to the Mexican state.”

On Thursday in Reynosa,
one of the scenes of Tuesday’s fighting, the local government put out
alerts for residents to avoid parts of the city. Residents said they
heard gunfire and saw military armored personnel carriers moving
through neighborhoods. One person was reported killed.

“People hear gunfire and get scared,” said Jaime Aguirre, a radio talk show host. “But it’s better to keep quiet and not hear anything so as not to risk reprisals.”

Reynosa resident Yenni Gandiaga was driving to the gas station Tuesday morning when she heard gunfire
getting closer and louder. Then she saw the troops and the gunmen. She
turned down a side street to hide, crashing into two other cars in the
process. “People ran about screaming, picking up their children,” she
said. She hid in a stranger’s house. When she emerged after the
combatants moved on, the windows of storefronts and cars were shattered.

The Mexican Defense Ministry in Mexico City
put out a blow-by-blow account of Tuesday’s events. Taking a page from
a manual on urban guerrilla warfare, drug gunmen struck at the same
time Tuesday morning, and then again in the afternoon.

In Reynosa, a city in Tamaulipas state that faces McAllen, Texas, gunmen positioned trucks, cars and trailers on a federal highway to block the Campo Militar, an army base, at about 11 a.m. At almost the same time, they blocked a garrison in the city of Matamoros, about 60 miles to the east. In Rio Bravo, between the two cities, traffickers battled with army patrols.

Later in the day, troops and traffickers clashed in other Tamaulipas towns and in neighboring Nuevo Leon state.

The army said it confiscated armored cars, grenade
launchers, about 100 military-grade grenades, explosive devices and
about 13,000 rounds of ammunition. Seven men were captured.

“The actions by these criminal organizations are a
desperate reaction to the advances made by federal authorities in
coordination with state and municipal security forces,” Gen. Edgar Luis Villegas said.

It was not clear whether the fighting the army
reported was with the Zetas or the stronger Gulf cartel. Most of the
violence until now has been cartel against cartel, with some bystanders
getting caught in the cross-fire. The gangs have also attacked police
stations in many areas.

The Zetas, founded as a group of mercenary former
soldiers working for the Gulf group, split away in a bid to take over
part of the lucrative drug trade. They are fighting to seize territory
from the Gulf network in Tamaulipas and Nuevo Leon, amid reports that other strong cartels, such as the one based in Sinaloa, may be uniting with the Gulf traffickers to wipe out the Zetas.

Dozens of people, primarily traffickers, have been
killed in recent weeks as the two groups clashed in the broad triangle
along the border from Nuevo Laredo to Monterrey to Reynosa and Matamoros. Traffickers have flexed their muscle by repeatedly setting up roadblocks, closing down highways and tying up traffic even in Monterrey, a major city.

“It is a risky tactic because it has the potential of angering society, but it is a very effective show of power,” said Martin Barron, a researcher at a Mexico City think tank.

The increased agility of the drug gangs seen in
Tuesday’s violence indicates good intelligence, experts here and abroad
said. Some of that intelligence comes from taxi drivers, street vendors
and scores of other locals on the traffickers’ payroll who serve as
lookouts for the drug runners and their henchmen. But Payan and others
suggested some of the precise, street-level intelligence may come from
soldiers, adding substance to fears that as the army is increasingly
dragged into the drug war it is becoming susceptible to the same
cartel-financed corruption that has long corroded police departments
and many political structures.

In Ciudad Juarez, Mexico’s
deadliest city and where the army has been deployed in greatest force,
federal police are to begin taking over security duties this month as
the army is gradually withdrawn, the government announced. The army has
been criticized for a raft of human rights abuses, including the
disappearance of detainees and illegal searches.

By one Mexican newspaper’s count, the drug war’s death toll in March was the highest yet — more than 1,000.

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(c) 2010, Los Angeles Times.

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